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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Politicising the pitch: Whose politics are acceptable?


The 2022 World Cup in Qatar has been dubbed the ‘most politically problematic World Cup in history’, despite previous tournaments being hosted by nations with deplorable human rights records.  

‘Human rights – on or off the pitch’ were the words written on the bibs of the Norwegian football team as they warmed up for the first game of the European qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar on Wednesday.

The protest was just the latest in multiple attempts by Norway to push for boycotting the 2022 World Cup due to alleged human rights abuses in Qatar, with Norwegian club Tromso leading the call.

“It’s about putting pressure on FIFA to be even more direct, even firmer with the authorities in Qatar, to impose stricter requirements,” said Norway’s Coach Stale Solbakken. 

Earlier this week, a committee was set up by Norway’s football association which contains “a broad composition of people in and outside football, with different voices in the debate and with important professional competence in the issues the committee is to assess.”

According to the association, the group will look at what the country “should do to respond to Qatar’s handling of human rights in the country, including studying, assessing and setting on which instrument Norwegian football shall use for its reaction.” 

Norway isn’t the only country that has raised questions about Qatar’s hosting of the global sporting event. Speaking to Doha News, the Dutch football federation this week admitted it was never in favour of the Qatari bid for the 2022 edition of the World Cup due to its “lack of football history and harsh temperatures”.

However, the KNVB said it does not believe that a boycott will help

“If you want to help improve the situation, you go there and raise awareness,” KNVB told Doha News. “Boycott does not help the people working there.” 

A day earlier, Dutch team coach Frank de Boer said in a press conference that they were advised by internationally renowned human rights groups to go ahead with the tournament after talks with rights organisations.

“Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have said that if we go there, we can better promote the cause,” de Boer said. 

However, in an opinion piece for the Independent, football writer Miguel Delaney said the “newly politicised football world” is in a position to leverage their attendance to bring about positive human rights changes.

Double standards

However, the protest also raises questions about double standards when it comes to supporting human rights in football. 

When former Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil spoke out against the persecution of Uighur Muslims in China, the club issued a firm statement to distance the club from the player’s comments and sidelined him for the rest of the season in a bid to safeguard its business interests in China, eventually pushing Ozil to moving to a Turkish team.

“Regarding the comments made by Mesut Özil on social media, Arsenal must make a clear statement,” the club said. “The content published is Özil’s personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.”

Arsenal’s Martin Odegaard was among those in the Norwegian team who spoke out against Qatar. However, the midfielder appears to have skimmed across rights abuses – including but not limited to the controversial kafala system – taking place in the United Arab Emirates, the London-team’s main sponsor. Some have questioned whether Odegaard would take off his Emirates-emblazoned Arsenal shirt to don a ‘human rights – on or off the pitch aimed at the UAE.

Similarly, in a series of tweets this week, Manchester City defender and England player John Stones also commented on Qatar.

“I was saying before that we’ve got such a platform to be able to express to the world,” he said, referring to the issues related to the Qatar World Cup. However, the footballer hasn’t extended the same level of concern to the UAE, which owns Manchester City football club and pays his salary.

“There’s always going to be discussion around the suitability of hosts and international relations with different countries, we have had that before we went to Russia,” England Manager Gareth Southgate said about the issue of playing the World Cup in Qatar. 

“I’m not oblivious to those political situations and whenever there’s a political situation that we feel would benefit from focus, we would see it as a responsibility to do that,” the England manager said.  

“But equally, as the manager of the team, we are told where to play and our job is to prepare the team so I think there are other people who’ve got to lead those discussions and lead those debates,” Southgate said. 

In 2008, when Egyptian Football star Mohammed Aboutrika and Mali’s Freddi Kaoute launched a similar protest to Norway’s team players by wearing t-shirts in solidarity of Palestinians suffering under Israeli occupation. However, they were penalised by authorities and even attacked by western media.

Historic labour reforms

The recent developments emerged just days after Qatar’s historic labour reforms came into effect on Saturday, introducing the region’s first ever non-discriminatory minimum wage.

In addition to the minimum monthly basic wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals QR (275 USD), the new legislation stipulates that employers must pay allowances of at least QR 300 for food and QR 500 for housing, should employers not provide workers with these directly.

As part of the major labour reform agenda, Qatar has drastically enhanced monitoring across the board to detect violations, enacting swifter penalties and further strengthening the capacity of labour inspectors, according to an announcement made by the Government Communications Office (GCO).

Employers who pay their staff less than the minimum wage will face one-year in jail and a QR 10,000 fine.

Read also: Qatar says labour reforms ‘far from complete’ following Amnesty ‘Reality Check’ migrant report

The GCO also said that since the reforms and new minimum wage were announced in September 2020, some 5,252 companies with a total of 222,042 workers have already updated their payroll systems.

These labour reforms also include the dismantling of the controversial “kafala” or sponsorship system, becoming the first country in the region to do so.

Workers are no longer required to obtain an exit permit to leave the country, or a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to request permission from former employers to change jobs.

In an exclusive interview with Doha News, senior International Labour Organisation (ILO) official, Houtan Homayounpour said more work needs to be done to ensure the protection of workers in Qatar, though authorities should be recognised for the work that has gone into making these changes.

Meanwhile, FIFA President Gianni Infantino weighed into the global topic and assured protecting human rights is a top priority for FIFA.

“We need to be fair there (in Qatar) and admit a lot of progress has happened… in the conditions of the workers. Of course more can be done everywhere, always – even in Switzerland,” said the FIFA president.

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